One More Stop On The Road For Donna The Buffalo

My wife Sandy and I recently saw in concert an electric and eclectic band from upstate New York amusingly named Donna The Buffalo, and afterward I wanted to write about the show. Before sitting down to compose my magnum opus though, I mulled over my approach to the subject matter. The main question I posed to yours truly was: What should the subject matter comprise? Naturally, Donna The Buffalo needed to be a big part of the focus. But you know what? I knew little about DTB pre-gig, and possess only a cursory knowledge about the band now. We went to see them on little more than a whim. I’d heard of them, knew that their history was lengthy, and decided that taking a chance on them would be fun. When my mulling concluded, I was of the opinion that the path that brought me to this show also should be part of the story.

I think of myself as a music lover. I listen to a wide variety of genres and have been to well over 1,000 concerts during my earthly tenure. Yet, these days I feel like a tyro when I listen to radio stations or read music-related websites, magazines and newspapers. I mean, more often than not, I am unfamiliar with the musicians. To me, it is just incredible how many solo performers and bands are out there playing the game. In the USA alone, there must be 50,000 professional musical acts, maybe more. In my younger days I thought that I had a handle on a fair percentage of music makers. No longer, not now in the Internet Age when anybody and everybody can make his or her presence felt.

And so, ten or more years ago I largely gave up on trying to keep up with the avalanches of musicians plying their trade. It was just too much work, too exhausting. Better, I think, to stay in tune to a lesser extent, and also to take gambles and hope for the best. As with Donna The Buffalo.

New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.
New Hope Winery, one half hour before showtime.

Donna The Buffalo appeared at New Hope Winery, a venue in the Philadelphia suburbs that Sandy and I discovered last year and have become very fond of. The joint was packed with 200 or more souls when DTB took the stage. A front-and-center area, where tables normally would be placed, had been cleared to create space for dancers. I looked over the crowd. At some previous visits to the Winery I’d seen demographics heavily tilted to the 50 and above bracket. Not this night. DTB had tipped the age scales downward substantially. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings abounded. There even were a few very young children in the room.

Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.
Donna The Buffalo in action at New Hope Winery.

What a band. Not having known what to expect, song number one told me that I had chosen wisely by attending this concert. A quintet, DTB was tremendously tight and intuitive all night long, and possessed a large catalog of songs to choose from. They held the stage for two hours and 10 minutes, filling their long set with 22 songs and little between-tune chatter. I was standing just behind the dance section, which was crowded with bobbers and weavers. After two or three songs, I too began to go with the flow. And kept going. But I was bouncing alone — Sandy stayed at the extremely stage right table to which we had been assigned. Her view of the musicians from there was lousy, but in the dance area she wouldn’t have had a chance seeing over anyone’s head. Mea culpa.

DTB has blended a bunch of musical styles into their sound: rock, country, zydeco, reggae. Rock being the dominant force. On some songs (What Money Cannot Buy; Love and Gasoline) the power was relentless, Stonesy, irresistible. On others (The Ones You Love; Conscious Evolution) the groove expanded, contracted, widened once again, giving no mercy to the audience. All you had to do on those expansive numbers, Grateful Dead-ish and Allmans-ish as they were, was close your eyes to be transported to a higher and mind-opening plane. Yes, Donna The Buffalo was that good.

DTB began its journey in the late 1980s, picking up steam in the mid 90s, and in the current century has become a decently successful and popular unit. They tour like crazy and have amassed a loyal national fan base known as The Herd, a mini version of the Deadheads. Two original band members (Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear) remain. Tara and Jeb compose most of the group’s songs, usually individually. At the Winery, each took the lead vocal spotlight on his or her compositions. Jeb opted for the laidback Jerry Garcia approach to singing and handled electric guitar sizzlingly. He’s a guitar hero unknown to 99% of Americans. Tara’s sweet and gentle mountain drawl pleased me much. And she was the band’s multi-instrumentalist. Fiddle, acoustic guitar, accordion, tambourine and scrubboard (for the zydeco numbers) were her arsenal.

A bunch of musicians have played alongside Tara and Jeb since DTB’s inception. The three current guys have been around for several years. Mark Raudabaugh killed on the drums. Kyle Sparks was all over his electric bass’ strings, drawing out lines that percolated and sang. And organist David McCracken was immense. So many times in so many bands, especially the poppier or atmospheric ones, the keyboard player is on the lame side, somehow fooling the audience with pretty chords and simplistic runs. Not McCracken. He can play. He jabbed, moved fast, reached for the skies, whatever it took.

So, how many acts that I’ve never heard of or barely heard of, and that I’d find to be great, are on the circuit? The question is a puzzle, the answer unknowable. Which makes music and, similarly, much else of life, delightful.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The Wonderful Kim Richey In New Hope

Kim Richey, with Dan Mitchell, at The New Hope Winery
Kim Richey, with Dan Mitchell, at The New Hope Winery

Ah, the world is ripe for discovery. So many places to see, and not nearly enough time to make a big dent in the to-visit list. And I’m not even talking about locales such as Barcelona, Copenhagen, the Amazonian jungle or the Hindu Kush mountains. Let’s leave them for another day and look instead at what’s not far from our front doors.

Last June my wife and I did just that, journeying all of 17 miles from our home to a music venue a short distance from the artsy heart of New Hope, Pennsylvania. That venue, The New Hope Winery, had been at the lower areas of my radar screen for several years. The stars finally aligned correctly and led us there, where we saw Griffin House, a good singer-songwriter. We enjoyed the Winery experience so much, we returned three more times before year’s end.

The New Hope Winery actually is several buildings. One is a wine and gift shop. The music hall is another. A large rectangle, the hall is wood-paneled and filled with cocktail tables draped with red tablecloths. It is a comfortable place, but nothing fancy, and seats around 200. Many musicians who pass through the Winery make their living touring this and other countries. People such as Raul Malo, Chris Hillman (an original Byrd), Dar Williams and Judy Collins. Yet, the Winery isn’t as well known as other Philadelphia-area venues, Sellersville Theater and World Café Live for instance, that present these same or similar artists. In other words, The New Hope Winery could use more visibility.

We took in our first Winery concert of 2015 last Friday when we went to see Nashville-based Kim Richey, who was accompanied by her longtime musical mate Dan Mitchell. Kim sang lead and strummed an acoustic guitar, and Dan handled vocal harmonies, keyboards and, most unexpectedly, an occasional trumpet or fluegelhorn interlude. Kim wrote or co-wrote all of the 17 songs that she performed in her 90 minutes set. She was absolutely wonderful.

Kim inhabits the sweet spot where country, folk and singer-songwriter sensibilities come together. Her voice is steady and lovely, her songs tuneful and literate. Fans of Mary Chapin Carpenter or Patty Griffin probably already love, or would love, Kim Richey. I’ve known of her for years, but never knew much about her or her music. Turns out she was a latecomer to the music game, grabbing her first record contract at age 37 (she’s 58 now). She has released seven studio albums since 1995. The most recent is 2013’s Thorn In My Heart.

At the Winery, Richey and Mitchell worked together pretty seamlessly. Mitchell did a good job on keyboards and on the horns, but what I liked best were the effortless vocal harmonies that he partnered with Richey’s calm but warm voice. Their singing brought a hush to the room.

About half of Richey’s set came from Thorn In My Heart. She sang her chosen songs unhurriedly, and most looked at love and relationships, but from differing angles. On one hand there was Every River , the song’s narrator so in love with her guy that she declares “When the day comes that I don’t love you/Every star will fall out of the sky.” She doesn’t expect to lose love, but for sure her world will become calamitous if she does.

Alas, in the sad sad sad Those Words We Said, calamity has arrived. A traumatic breakup has struck a gal hard. She hits the highway to try and assuage her problems, but she can’t stop thinking about “Those words that wounded like an arrow to the heart,/And keep me drivin’, drivin’.” In New Hope, I totally believed the heartbreak.

Kim Richey is a high-level talent. And she might have a demographics problem. Based on The New Hope Winery audience, I’d think so. The 150 or so folks in the room were middle-aged or older, with the emphasis definitely on older. They were a great audience, clapping long and loudly after each song. But seeing a few youthful faces in the crowd I’m sure would have made Kim’s night even better. If Kim doesn’t have many younger fans, why is beyond me.  The millenials who turn out in droves to see smart youngish songwriters like Norah Jones and Conor Oberst would like Kim Richey too. Yes, I’m pretty certain that Kim could use a broader fan base. She certainly deserves one, but she’s not alone in that. The music business is not only tough, it’s tough to figure out.